Le-Marie Thompson caught the entrepreneurial bug while working in the telecommunications industry. She spent time with companies developing innovative solutions to global problems and she wanted to start working on her own creative ideas.
Last year, she started Nettadonna, now housed in Washington’s 1776 incubator, with a vision of a product development company that addresses sustainability challenges.
Thompson decided to focus on minerals collected in places of conflict. Like “blood diamonds,” there are several minerals mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and surrounding countries. In these areas, armed groups run mineral mines, subject mine workers to serious human right violations and use mining proceeds to fund regional wars.
These conflict minerals are the same minerals that are used in the manufacture of nearly every electronic device from cell phones to dishwashers. To bring about awareness and eventual change, the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act includes a provision that requires public companies to disclose use of conflict minerals in their Securities and Exchange Commission filings. These rules are scheduled to go into effect in May. Thompson is hoping to help companies figure out if they are using conflict minerals.
“Nettadonna is a sustainable product development company committed to global stewardship of product development practices and conditions that foster responsible management of the world’s resources. Our first product is a ConflictFreeElectronics platform that helps companies gain information beyond the electronic characteristics of the components in their end products. Companies can use our platform to put in place robust due diligence programs that rid their supply chain of conflict minerals.
“We have differentiated ourselves because ConflictFreeElectronics focuses on addressing the use of conflict minerals from the initial stage of a product’s development — prior to sourcing, purchasing and integration — into an end solution. Like Care.com for child care and Angie’s List for a certified plumber, we want ConflictFreeElectronics to be a place where companies can come to locate conflict-free minerals, components and manufacturers. This will help them rid their supply chain of conflict minerals.
“Right now, we’re beta testing the platform with several companies. We’re pushing for a full commercial rollout in the spring before the Dodd-Frank provisions take effect.
“As a young company, I have quite a few business challenges and opportunities, including capturing new market potential in financial firms that will need to audit manufacturers’ conflict mineral reports. But one of my most immediate challenges is what to do about my company name?
“I came up with the name Nettadonna back in 1996 as a freshman electrical engineering student. It was my e-mail address — composed of part of my mother’s name. The name, though, does not describe the product that we are developing, and it seems to be the trend now to pick a name that does. Should I drop Nettadonna as the company name and switch to ConflictFreeElectronics?”
Elana Fine, managing director, Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship
“Your instincts are right — the name needs to change. Like you said, the current generations of start-ups are choosing names that reflect their product, service, industry or value proposition versus the more whimsical names of the dot.com era. Ironically, company names like Yahoo and Google would have a harder time surviving in the age of search engine optimization where companies allocate significant marketing spend on keywords closest to their products. Although there are exceptions (car service start-up Uber springs to mind), the current landscape of start-up names reflects a more complicated combination of “simply say what you do” and attention-grabbing creativity.
“That being said, you should be careful of being too vanilla. While ConflictFreeElectronics might clearly communicate your value proposition, it is certainly a mouthful and might lead customers to believe that you are selling the electronic products themselves instead of a software tool. Spend some time brainstorming all of the attributes of your product, your mission and your target market and generate a list of words that might resonate. Grab someone with branding expertise, create 25-50 possible names and start asking people what resonates. Don’t pigeon hole yourself with the “electronics” if there is opportunity in the future to expand to other markets, such as clothing or gemstones.
“As a mission-driven venture, work to develop a brand that communicates the key tenets of that mission. Set your sights on what you hope to achieve — are you improving supply chain intelligence or are you working to eliminate the use of conflict minerals? You still need a great product to close sales, but a compelling and aspirational brand might initially open doors.”
“Naming the platform ConflictFreeElectronics was in anticipation of creating a machine-to-machine hardware product that would assist companies in monitoring and tracking of mineral and component assets on the ground. We needed the software platform developed first; as the component data to design the conflict-free hardware solution would come from the software platform. At this time, the hardware design, customer assessment and partnership development is still under way for the second hardware product.
“As an ambitious start-up, we would love to both improve supply chain intelligence and eliminate the use of conflict minerals. The challenge for us is to focus on where the greatest customer needs are at this time, while building our brand.”